Superheroes and the City

      Though I’m not exactly sure how, I recently stumbled across a new graphic novel entitled Batman: Death by Design penned by acclaimed graphic novelist, Chip Kidd. This comic “explores the links between Batman and architecture” as well as the city, which in this case is obviously Gotham. This got me thinking about the comics’ fictional cities, how they are portrayed, how they differ, and even why authors chose the settings as large cities. Plus, it’s almost impossible to resist the opportunity to bring in Batman/Spiderman/Green Lantern/Wonder Woman/basically any Marvel or DC Comic superhero into the discussion. Those who disagree probably don’t remember the Halloween when they dressed up like Superman/woman (which was last Halloween for me), or the times they flexed their muscles yelling  at their mom, “look, I’m Spiderman” just before leaping off the couch and making “web” noises.  Just me? Maybe I have revealed a little too much of my childhood comic book days, but this led me to review the cities within a few of these stories. Though Superman was raised in a small town (hence the name “Smallville”), he ultimately found Metropolis as his home and true calling of fighting crime. The wickedly eerie streets of Gotham played a huge role in the rise of Batman. New York City, with its towering building and dark alleys, made a neat setting for Spiderman to swing and leap from.



                These cities depicted within the stories allow readers and viewers to experience a place with even bigger problems than the actual ones they live in. This allows viewers to gain a new perspective as if to say, ” They have some real issues in Metropolis. I guess Detroit isn’t so bad…,” or something along those lines. This gives viewers a sense of confidence and hope to face and help conquer the problems their city encounters. We all know that the news  media and internet postings cover crime and violence daily in America and world-wide, but I’ve never read an article about a man with eight robotic arms fused to his body trying to take over Chicago, nor, contrary to popular belief, one about a seductive woman whose blood is literal poison and has the ability to control plant-life attempting to brainwash citizens of New York. Authors not only reach viewers through elaborate villains and problems the cities encounter, but they give human-like qualities to the superheroes which allow audiences to connect and identify with the characters if only for a second. Though we also know superheroes are fictional and that we as mere mortals could never rescue a city from a natural disaster or from a Los Angeles-sized meteor about to strike Atlanta, these stories inspire us to offer what assistance we can give. They tell us that we are equal because no one can obtain superpowers. Thus, we know there is a strategy behind the problems portrayed in these cities, but what about how these cities and their cultures are represented through the stories and what effects that has on the characters?


        The comics and films show the different views of the “big city life” from one extreme to the other. Scott Vollum and Cary D. Atkinson of Sam Houston State University wrote an article comparing two superhero counterpart cities: Metropolis and Gotham City. These opposites not only contrast in physical descriptions, but in culture as well. Superman’s Metropolis represents a bustling city of hope and optimism with mostly happy citizens where the line separating good and evil is very clear. On the contrary, Batman’s Gotham City represents the darker side of large American cities with its dark allies, dangerous streets, and city-wide corruption. Furthermore, these physical depictions represent the cultures within each city as well. For Gotham City, the line between good and evil is a blurry one. Batman is forced to work outside the justice system due to corrupt law enforcement officers and politicians. The cities these heroes swore to protect defines them as people. The cultures of each city effect the way each superhero views justice, right and wrong, as well as their morally and ethically beliefs. Gotham’s eerily sketch appearance mirrors its shadowy, unpredictable citizens and questioning voices of authority. Batman is challenged countless times to go against what is traditionally “right” for the betterment of Gotham’s citizens, which raises the complicated question of if Batman chooses to do something for the benefit of the entire city, but breaks the law while doing so, is he not as “bad” as the criminals he’s fighting? This unclear view of good/evil and right/wrong is a grey cloud of smog that hovers over Gotham City, effecting everyone within including Batman.  As a counterpart, Metropolis’s culture is very black and white. The law and justice system are the good guys and deserve respect for acting on the betterment of its citizens and staying value-conscious of what is good and evil. Since its citizens have this viewpoint, Superman does not have the challenging inner conflict of what is right and wrong, and what is the best thing to do. Social order is another significant trait in the two cities’ cultures. For Gotham, Batman is on a constant move of the social ladder. One minute he is a hero, another he is the enemy. The social order is continuously changing because many corrupt people Batman fights are either of the wealthy community and want to take over the word, or they are from the bottom of the social order totem-pole , lashing out as “products of a harsh society” (Vollum, 100). Either way, these villains rise from within the city of Gotham, while those in Metropolis respect the social order because it is “the American way.” Superman’s foes mostly derive from outside Metropolis or even earth itself. The significance of the culture’s social order is more evident in Superman’s stories and also adds to how Superman and Metropolis citizens view the justice system. We see both extreme city-life scenarios and that they can be saved.  But what does this say to those in small towns?

                Small towns don’t encounter large problems and if they do they’re not worth rescuing? Why couldn’t a superhero live in Auburn, AL. to save its citizens from crime and serve justice? Are larger cities more dangerous than small towns? Many say these stories were set in these large cities because it’s where DC Comics and Marvel Comics factories were located, while others like Peter Gutierrez from the New York Times blog claim,

           “Even beyond its physical architecture, New York City provided a perfect setting for superheroic exploits. As a financial center, its concentration of wealth could act as a powerful magnet for bigger-than-life criminals. As a global city, it was ripe for international intrigue. And as a fashion mecca and a famously tolerant place, it established a social environment in which saviors of humankind dressed in flamboyant homemade costumes could go about their business.”

Gutierrez further noted that New York contained a more generic” American” feel associated with the famous “American dream” so many Americans and immigrants desired to obtain. Regardless the reasoning behind it, I think it would be interesting to have had a legendary superhero reside in a small town, fighting crime and serving justice. Maybe they’ve done it and I am simply ignorant for not being aware of it or maybe it would have been less entertaining.

                In summation, for many superheroes, including Batman and Spiderman, the cities in which they serve, as well as the cultures practiced within them play a vital roles in their identities and ultimately impacts how these superheroes carry out justice. In this case, a city’s culture includes its justice system, social order, law enforcement, physical traits, etc. It is evident that each city’s physical appearance also represents insights into the cities’ cultures.  Through comics and films, we are able to see clear representations of the cities these superheroes fight to rescue, while gaining new perspectives of the way we view our own cities of residence. I understand I might be squeezing this a little too far, trying to make something out of nothing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the research I was able to find and found it quite interesting!





Filed under City Cultures

6 responses to “Superheroes and the City

  1. First off, as a fellow comic book fan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The differences between Metropolis and Gotham city are obvious. However, one seldom takes the time to think about the intentions of the authors and why they chose to portray their cities in such a light. Honestly, your post made the gears in my mind begin to whirl. I think that these authors create a city that is a reflection of their super hero. Superman has a black and white personality, good means good and vice versa. Batman, on the other hand, is a more complex character (and closest to a REAL person) who is faced with real-life conflicts. I don’t mean that super villains with supernatural powers exist; I mean that sometimes decisions that we make aren’t so cut and dry. This is reflected through Gotham City and through Batman himself.

  2. tinyopinions

    I think one of the reasons that most superheroes live in big cities is because it affords them a greater level of anonymity. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Super, which is about a man who becomes a costumed vigilante in a small town, but it’s much harder for him to hide his identity than it is for Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne.
    I never got into reading comic books, but as someone who can’t get enough of superhero movies, I love the way the city itself plays a prominent role in those films. Who can forget the scene in Spiderman 2 where Spiderman stops the runaway train by anchoring himself to the buildings via his web? To take it more generally, New York plays a huge role in the Spiderman series because of the fact that acts as a jungle gym of sorts for Spiderman. This is also true in The Avengers, when (and I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers) the heroes defend the city and we get to see them fighting in the streets, in the buildings, and even in the air. In that movie, the street-level and birds-eye views bring another dimension to the way we view the city.

  3. saltysnail27

    First off, I would like to say that this post is AWESOME. I really didn’t make the connection between superheroes and the big city. Call me crazy, but I just didn’t connect the dots. I, too, think that superheroes operate within the city because it affords the opportunity to be both anonymous and their identities to remain obscure. The reason I found this post to be so interesting is because I watched this documentary about present day superheroes. These people live in the now and they dress up in ridiculous clothing. They patrol their streets and neighborhoods defending the weak and powerless. While watching the documentary the whole hero in the city theme reemerged as well. There were no “small town” members of this underground society. I’m also a member frequent visitor of their website. It’s quite interesting when you think about it. Below I’ve posted links to the sites that I frequently visit. You guys should check it out. It’s definitely worth wild. 🙂 GREAT POST!!

  4. Really great post and discussion. I just cut this reading (which was on the syllabus the day of your final project), but you might want to check it out anyway: I like the idea that superheroes fighting in cities makes us feel better about the state of our cities, and that does fit with the discussion you found about Metropolis and Gotham City. It’s almost like superheroes make an argument for different ways of understanding the big city. Very cool.

  5. This post was really interesting! I had never thought about it much before, but the city really is the place for superheroes. I agree with you that it would be nice to see superheroes for small towns. However, I think those superheroes would be exceptionally different from our traditional Superman or Spiderman. Perhaps this is because of a social contrast in general. For example, with smaller towns having fewer people, there comes a lot of connection among the people there, so almost everyone knows everyone else (or at least knows someone who knows the person they don’t know). That type of culture often involves a team feeling, an experience it seems like superheroes provide for a large city when they save the day. That “we’re all in this together” sort of philosophy can create a people who become less excepting to change. For example, newcomers to a small town can easily be automatic enemies. They are viewed much like interruptions in a small town’s life. If a place has difficulty accepting a human being from another town, then I can imagine the difficulty in receiving a supernatural being who glides through the air or jumps from building to building. The culture of a small town is just not cut out for someone like Batman or Spiderman. Small town superheroes would likely need to be disguised as somebody’s grandpa or some political figure in the area.
    On the other hand, I feel like the old depiction of superheroes saving large cities is something that has contributed to American culture in general. It reminds me of just how much American culture has centered on city-based concepts and practices. To those who want to come to American, the perks of being in America are typically related to city culture or even to a particular city. Perhaps this is because we’ve projected America through city-related terms, especially through our most popular entertainment (such as comics), which people all around the world have enjoyed as much as we have.

  6. ecc0009

    I really enjoyed reading this post. With “The Avengers” recent debut to the big screen, my interest in all things superheroes has taken a great rise. I think that you have made a great point as to why superheroes stories are based around large cities. A comic book, movie, or TV series on a small town superhero would quite honestly be boring. It is almost impossible to imagine the setting of “The Avengers” to be in Auburn, Alabama. The point you made about how there is so much more problems in large cities is true even in the real world, not just the world of superheroes. Because of the nature of large cities, with more people comes more crime and problems. Great job!!

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